Since seeing the films of Maya Deren 17 years ago, I have continuously seen viewers fall in love with her screen presence with an immediacy that few other actors or filmmakers have. I may have met a few stoned college students who are ambivalent towards her films, but no one who disliked them. Usually, Deren’s work is considered utterly inspiring. 100 years since her birth, Maya Deren can be considered many things, from a pioneer of American experimental film to a traveler who added much to the poetic documentary. She has become an obligatory part of Film 101 courses at universities around the world, exemplifying how bodies move on film, be it through dance or violence. Deren can be looked at in context to the European surrealists of the 1920’s and early 30’s, as well as ethnographic and experimental documentarians up to the present day. Her extensive range of practices and subject matter ensure that she is a unique contribution to American cinema, influencing such a wide array of genres from modern dance to horror cinema.
Born to Ukrainian immigrant parents, Eleanora Derenkowsky, later taking the name Maya, earned a Master of Arts degree in English at Smith College in Northampton, MA. However, it was her penchant for dance and inherent need to move her body that informed the films she soon began making, just as much as any kind of literary or poetic source. At just 14 minutes long, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), will always be one of the greatest works of cinema. It follows a woman through her beautiful and anxiety provoking dreams that, show her struggling against mirror images of herself and forever chasing a shrouded figure who’s face is literally a mirror. Different objects—a knife, a key—are replaced with each other to create confusion and wonder. The film, and in particular the figure with the mirrored-face, has reappeared in work from interplanetary jazz musician Sun Ra, to contemporary singer and actress Janelle Monae. In recent years, some historians have stressed that Meshes of the Afternoon is just as much a film by Deren’s then-lover Alexander Hammid. While this may be true, it is impossible to take Maya out of the film—she appears in it threefold. Her collaborative relationship with Hammid has also brought to light another film they had made together, The Private Life of a Cat (1944). Seen very seldom until recently, it is a poetic documentary they made documenting their cat and her kittens.
Deren followed this up with At Land (1946), a short film that explores the body’s relationship to ocean and beach environments. She uses trick editing to go from climbing on a gnarled tree into a bourgeois dinner party, chasing after a chess pawn from there. These contrasting settings, along with other camera tricks including frame-by-frame manipulation of objects, and showing shots in reverse, align her just as much with Russian cinema pioneer Dziga Vertov as it does with surrealist prankster Luis Buñuel. What those filmmakers lack that Deren adds both behind and in front of the camera is a sense of femininity, and a temporal nature that is more attuned with women than men. At Land concludes with two women playing chess on a beach, with Deren interrupting them. She then divides herself via the magic of editing, so she continues to stand beside the chess players, while simultaneously running away.
A Study in Choreography for Camera (1946) has a somewhat explanatory title. What the film really shows is how Deren was familiar with the intricate nature of a 16mm film camera, as much as she was with a human body in motion. It is not as packed with poetic objects as her earlier films are, although it does still include space-expanding editing choices, but Study in Choreography is a film that seems almost like mandatory viewing for those who aspire to be in front of a camera, either for conventional actors or wiley performance artists.
The films to follow were much in the same studious, observational vein, while continuing to work with metaphor and technical precision. Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) plays with editing choices in order to expand the notions of time and space. Meditation on Violence (1949) equates martial arts, specifically the Wu Tang style of shadow boxing, into a dancing art form in itself. In The Very Eye of Night (1958), ballet performers mark constellations in the night sky, as film negatives and other trick camera moves allow them to defy gravity.
Most of her work in the 1950’s up until her early passing in 1961, involved studies of Haitian Vodou. It has been noted by some commentators on her life just how strange her experience in Haiti was, simply because at the time—and still today—Deren was one of the few outsiders, and white people, that Haitians initiated into their practices and allowed to record their Vodoun rituals on tape and celluloid. During her lifetime, these experiences manifested themselves in a hefty book titled Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, originally published in 1952, and edited by renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. Of all words, dense is the first descriptor to come to mind, in a way that makes the text seem like it is meant for readers who already have a working knowledge of Haitian culture and their spiritual practices. Reading through it as a complete outsider is initially quite daunting.
The film version of Divine Horsemen was not released until years after her death, finished by her lover Teiji Ito. Finally reaching public eyes in the 1980’s, it is a document of Vodou rituals, many of which are quite visually haunting. Seeing participants flailing their bodies in a manner that indicates either reckless abandon or possession, the slow motion photography allows for viewers to view the spirits possessing participants in their wide eyes. Deren began her career using her own body in front of the camera, enacting artistic rituals of a kind, and concluded her career observing the bodies in movement of these spiritual participants.
Stan Brakhage had a fascinating story in which he claims Maya Deren once threw a refrigerator across the room while possessed by the god Papa Loco. Some people believe that Deren was able to channel these gods, while it is also possible that she was just absolutely high on speed. Her death at age 44 was most likely helped along by her abuse of (then over the counter) amphetamines, but many people romanticize the Vodou spirits they believe she upset in her studies and artistic practice. Like other artists who died too young, it is fun to speculate over what they could have produced had they lived much longer. Yet in the end, Deren’s body of work is quite robust, showing an arc of subject matter that continuously went back to the body in movement and ritualistic practices. Many artists have been influenced by Deren in the past 60 to 80 years, but few have matched her talent and character.